Journalism in the Public Interest

Margin Call: A Small Movie Unveils Big Truths About Wall Street

Margin Call’s all-star cast brings to life writer/director J.C. Chandor’s film, which is the most insightful Wall Street movie ever produced.

Zachary Quinto as Peter Sullivan and Penn Badgley as Seth Bregman in Margin Call. (JoJo Whilden/Roadside Attractions)

Spoiler alert: This article discusses key scenes from the film.

J.C. Chandor has embraced Rahm Emanuel's dictum "never let a serious crisis go to waste." The 37-year-old writer and director used the financial crisis as a springboard to create the most insightful Wall Street movie ever filmed. Margin Call captures a day in the life of a Lehman Brothers-like bank as it scrambles to avoid falling into the first cracks of the financial crisis. Briskly paced and marvelously acted, the movie reveals how large financial institutions operate and the motivations of the people who work within them.

Margin Call should not be confused with journalism. It is not a precise overlay of the financial crisis. You'll never hear the words collateralized debt obligations uttered in the movie. As the reporting I did with my colleague Jesse Eisinger showed, the Wall Street behavior that helped create the financial crisis was often much worse than what's depicted in the movie. Chandor isn't looking for villians or lengthy explanations. He's mining deeper truths than the intricacies of credit default swaps. The societal costs of high finance, the power of self-rationalization, and the easy embrace of personal corruption is his terrain.

As reporters covering the beat know, Wall Street is a reluctant participant in introspection. Journalists investigating the Street have to pierce a code of omertà, borne of the fear of lawsuits and federal investigations. No one wants to have the reputation of being a snitch in an industry where hiring and bonuses are based on relationships as much as quarterly results. The truth is even more tightly held when it hides the origins of financial disaster, but even in the best of times, these are not, by nature, navel gazers. Traders and market makers are like sharks, always wanting to move forward, onto the next deal. There is no percentage in looking back.

All you need to know about the moral universe Margin Call inhabits is on display in the opening scene of the movie. The downturn has begun. The firing squad -- represented by two women in identical business suits -- arrives on the trading floor trailed by underlings carrying cardboard boxes to cart away personal effects. When they come into view, a series of swift reactions plays across the face of Will Emerson, a senior trader acted brilliantly by Paul Bettany. First fear. Then dismay. And finally, relief and dismissal. After 80 percent of the floor is axed, Emerson's boss, Sam, a wan Kevin Spacey, gives a pep talk to the traders left standing. "They were good. You are better. Now they are gone. They are not to be thought of again."

Among the casaulties is the risk manager for the trading group, Eric Dale, played by Stanley Tucci. On the way out the door, Dale tells his young protege, Peter Sullivan, that he has been working on something important. As the elevator closes, he hands Sullivan a zip drive and says cryptically, "Be careful."

Jeremy Irons as John Tuld in Margin Call. (Walter Thomson/Roadside Attractions)Sullivan, played by Zachary Quinto, who also helped produce the movie, waits until the office clears for the night and then dives into the figures. To his horror, he discovers the bank is massively overleveraged. If trends continue, projected losses are much greater than the value of the firm. Upon learning how dire the situation has become, the CEO John Tuld, portrayed by a scene-chewing Jeremy Irons, says, "So what you are telling me is that the music is about to stop and we are going to be left holding the biggest bag of oderous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism."

Sullivan is the questioning heart of Margin Call. He has a doctorate in engineering with a speciality in propulsion -- literally a rocket scientist. And like so many of the best and brightest of his generation, he turned to Wall Street, where Chandor clearly believes his gain is society's loss. When one of his superiors asks Sullivan why he has foresaken engineering, he responds: "It's all just numbers really, just changing what you are adding up, and to speak freely, the money here is considerably more attractive."

Sullivan operates in the constricted space of the Wall Street risk manager. Risk managers and accountants are among the few who actually know what the numbers mean. They see the whole picture. It's a running joke through the movie that Sullivan's bosses, right up to the CEO, don't understand the financial wizardry behind the products they make and sell. When confronted with Sullivan's analysis, Sam says, "Oh Jesus, you know I can't read these things. Just speak to me in English."

The risk manager is not in sales, which is the heart and soul of the institution. He or she only offers recommendations. Throughout Margin Call there are a number of references to warnings unheeded. And indeed, in the real world, the success of investment banks at subverting their risk management rules correlated nicely with how badly they fared when the crisis hit. In the ultimate irony, when it's time for someone to take the fall for the firm's risk taking, it's the head of risk management, played by Demi Moore who is pushed to the scaffold.

Sullivan and his side-kick Seth, played by Penn Badgley, are still new enough to the system to be doubtful of its utility. Seth is enamored with the money Wall Street offers and particularly impressed by his boss Will Emerson, who pulled down $2.5 million the previous year. They briefly wonder whether that's "right," but push the unwelcome thought away unanswered.

When Emerson tells the eager young men that "you learn to spend what is in your pocket" and that most of his money is gone, they are incredulous. He itemizes his expenses for them, including $76,520 for hookers, booze and dancers. Their adulation only increases when he admits he claimed most of that back as entertainment expenses.

Later when Seth bemoans the fact that normal people will be hurt by their actions, Emerson's ferocious response is shocking both for its amorality and its kernels of truth.

"If you really want to do this with your life you have to believe that you're necessary. And you are. People want to live like this in their cars and their big fucking houses that they can't even pay for? Then you're necessary. The only reason they all get to continue living like kings is because we've got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and the whole world gets really fucking fair really fucking quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don't. They want what we have to give them, but they also want to play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. That's more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow. Fuck them. Fuck normal people."

Faced with the pile of excrement on the books, the archly named Tuld (Lehman Brothers CEO was Dick Fuld) decides the bank must unload it, and quickly, before customers wise up. At this point, the movie could just as easily be called, "Damage Control: When Greed Turns to Fear."

Sam tries to talk Tuld out of his plan. "If you do this, you will kill the market for years. It's over. And you are selling something that you know has no value," he says.

Tuld responds with the excuse every Wall Street executive used when investigators came calling after the shit hit the investors: "We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price so that we may survive."

In the real world, the buyers were not as sophisticated and the deals not as transparant as bankers claimed.

The House always wins, Emerson tells his young charges. The corollary is that everybody is for sale. Indeed, anyone who has qualms in the movie finds the right price for their acquiesence. In this world, traders earn bonuses for screwing their customers. Tucci's character is told he can lose his health care and stock options -- or keep them while sitting quietly in a room for a day at $176,476 an hour. "It didn't seem like much of a choice," he says.

Beyond the sheer entertainment value of the movie, Chandor's biggest coup is his willingness to indict a system rather than simply blame the individuals within it. Ultimately, Margin Call is the story of a Wall Street that has evolved from an economic helpmate to an economic predator.

Excellent review, I’m going to see the movie. I worked in accounting/finance/auditing my entire career and I can tell you I have had very few superiors that understood the numbers.  Walking away from my field is something that freed me to tell the truth about what I witnessed and to honestly assess the big picture and it isn’t pretty.  If they don’t take the banks and predators down our country is not going to recover.  The day of reckoning is here.

Incidentally another area concerns me as well and that is the healthcare industry.  Should we somehow pull ourselves out of this banking and investment nightmare the next bubble to burst is the healthcare industry.  No longer can health insurers kick people off their roles, cap lifetime benefits or deny a policy for pre-existing conditions.  With 1 out of 110 children diagnosed with autism and we have no clue what is causing this epidemic, (wink, wink) the health insurers will not be able to be able to sustain the high cost of these medical mysteries.  And that is only one issue, think of all the other diseases that have increased exponentially with no explanation as to why.  MS, scleroderma, FM, RA, lupus, CFIDS and many more the medical profession says, “we don’t know what causes these diseases” and they get away with it.  My instincts tell me its environmental causes but the medical industrial complex gets wealthy treating disease not curing or preventing disease so the next block buster drug is right around the corner while people get sicker and sicker.  What it looks like to me from a financial perspective is the pharmaceutical companies and the medical device and equipment manufacturers are controlling healthcare in a predatory fashion and no one is paying attention to the next crisis we face in paying for the negative externalities caused by PhRMA.  But the cost is real and it’s not going away.  We will be in for another rude awakening, when the piper starts to play and the health insurers (government or private) have to pay for the ever increasing costs of PhRMA’s profit at any cost machine.  Hopefully the next movie will be the story of PhRMA that has evolved from an health helpmate to an healthcare predator.

Yes, I’ve seen the film and this was a spot on review! I highly recommend seeing this film for anyone who has not yet seen it. The problems associated with an out of control political economy that this film just hints at are at the heart of our current worldwide disaster…

It’s time for a Molotov cocktail hour
with Robespierre ball to follow…

Я Ξ √ Ω L U T I ☼ ♫

Good review. I hope it gets nominated for some Oscars so more people will see it. To nitpick: I think you mean “scenery-chewing Jeremy Irons,” and commas are missing in “his side-kick, Seth,” and “his boss, Will Emerson.”

I haven’t been able to watch any of the films & documentaries on this topic except Margin Call, which I found as frightening as a horror film. For people to realize that we are all played for suckers and that there’s no one policing these grifters weakens the knees.  We never had a chance.

Let’s hope Elizabeth Warren wins her senate seat then perhaps goes on to the presidency.

Why why why isn’t this movie playing in Canada?? Heck we even have markets, investment bank (s)... Hmmm sorta, part of chartered banks… Please explain this to me. We get everything else. Conspiracy theory time…

Looking forward to an answer. A response. An explanation?

The HBO film “Too Big To Fail” was also a great showing of the facts behind Wall Street. They planned this, insured themselves against losses and didn’t care if they crashed the Banks or ruined this country. They used tax payer funding to buy more smaller banks and made themselves “too big to fail” on purpose to demand a federal loan and bail out. McCain assisted them. The only question is WHY HAVEN’T ANY OF THEM GONE TO JAIL??  I could also ask, why haven’t the feds gone after them and who stopped them..What is stopping this from happening again? Geinger didn’t do as asked by Obama when he asked him to draft the paper work..( Paul Suskinds book).One Republican House member from Illinois was told of the impending crash and cashed out..In all circles this would and should have been the same as insider trading, as he was told by Hank Paulson the market would tank. This saved his butt from losses.

I just returned from a FINRA sanctioned mediation with a Fortune 500 financial services firm.  FINRA rules allow attorneys to negotiate away federal and civil law violations, finra rules violations and the economic capital punishment of brokers who commit the truth.  Whistleblowers are crucified on the alter of expedient profits. Greed, corruption and hubris that has become Wall Street will ultimately bring down our economy.  Your complaints to the SEC, State Securities Boards, regulators and the like will fall on deaf ears without experienced, strong willed advocates.  I know.  I’ve been there.

Brilliant!  Let’s make sure as many people as possible see the movie so they will understand who republicans are trying to protect.

This film didn’t have a huge theatrical showing.  In my town, it played at an art house theatre for one week.  But it is available on demand if you have cable.

The medical industry will keep you sick, with their deceptive ways and code of silence. One way is to give you that super fantastic best medical care in the world, that 3D MRI with Contrast, only the contrast is metal, Gadolinium, have enough of those scans, ruin your kidneys, stays subclinically sick as the gadolinium toxicity wreaks havoc and your MD doesn’t have a “clue” what is wrong with you, except you have muscle aches, deep bone pain, balance problems, nausea/maybe vomiting, hair loss, mental fog and then you get skin problems and maybe if you are lucky, you will ask what your eGFR is, not your creatinine, which can be normal, but your kidneys can already damaged from acute kidney injury or you learn this sometime by reviewing your medical records. What does skin sx have to do with MRI’s. Search Gadolinium or, even the won’t tell you they are injecting you with metal, a rare toxic metal/mined in the USA,China, BC and etal. It’s coated, but doesn’t always adhere and you get sick, the goal is to keep you subclinically sick, that it’s all in your head, or we just don’t know what’s the matter with you. But, they do. When you do find out what gadolinium is, and the blackbox warnings, don’t believe that it is rare as some MD’s have written. Even CT contrast iodine, NAC is recommended pre and post scan to avoid nephrotoxicity, rarely prescribed. See Lippincott’s Nursing Drug Handbook, 2011. The 2011 PDR had no listings for contrasts. Search TC99. do you want that nuclear waste in your body or would you prefer the Cardiolyte name? Same thing. It’s in the active ingredient in boniva, too. Just get plain MRI/CT, avoid the injections/contrasts, they are not dyes, gadolinium was/is used in film development and has no use in human physiology, except for the radiologists toys. Lots of contrasts and tracer meds, these are not just for oncology patients. They spare no one except themselve$. BPA in medical devices/products is next, who wants to breath/touch that? It’s all over the place, they even get you to eat it, lining of most canned foods, even our water systems, that’s just what they tell us. It’s in money, too acc to Consumer Reports Health issue, last month.

Richard J McVey

Nov. 23, 2011, 9:52 p.m.

The film is available on VUDU to stream.

anne worthington

Nov. 23, 2011, 10:20 p.m.

Great review, interesting comments. I’m a journalist with a public broadcasting current affairs program in Australia. If any of the people who have commented above with direct experience of financial insitutions would like to help with a project we are pursuing, please get in touch. All of ther record…Thanks and enjoy the movie..  .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

@ Lynda Lawson,

We can’t get indictments because all of it was legal, because they made it legal. What do you think all the lobbying and deregulation these past forty years was all about? Making things easier for small time entrepreneurs? Phooey. Government used to work for people before Reagan made it the enemy, now it is just the enabler of a bunch of over-rich psychopaths and the lender of last resort when when everything blows up.

Never heard of this film until Chris Matthews reviewed it on his show. Tried to find it, not playing anywhere. Tried to buy the disc, cheapest on $34.00.
Interesting Huh?

Seems like Wall Street used its power to squeelch the film.

Sort of reminds me of a couple of other films that were buried and you’ll never find. Both of those were shots at the Catrholic Church, another powerhouse that has the wherewithall to shutdown anything it finds offensive to its being.

I purchased the movie through DIRECTV and it was only $7.99.  I love my DIRECTV and wouldn’t go with another provider. 

The women that played the outplacement specialists’ (you know the ones that were giving out the package that had a sailboat on the cover) were excellent actors - they nailed the coldblooded, heartless way they let people go.  They leave you little choice to file a complaint by threatening to take away the few months of health insurance they allot you and the generous six months of severance or 19+ years of service.  But the most conspicuous was their lack of empathy for the victims of their crimes.  They could have cared less.  It is what we have become.  If it doesn’t affect us personally oh well, too bad, suck it up.  And too few of us will speak the truth.  The doctor that lies to their patients about what they have or what will heal them vs. what will make them a profit center for their business, the companies that make inferior products that force us to consume more.  The pharmaceutical companies that rig clinical trials just so they can get a product on the market and make billions before it gets pulled for causing death and maiming people.  The government workers that know if they protect their paymasters they will be rewarded when they leave their civil service position, the politician that takes contributions because it’s the only way to get elected.  I have to say until Occupy Wall Street came along I had very little hope anything was going to change.  Total annihilation awaits us if we don’t start figuring out what is going on and demanding change.


Nov. 25, 2011, 2:42 p.m.


Would it shock Americans to know that wealth/income are distributed as in this simplistic example?

10% OWN 70% NET WEALTH—80% OWN 15%

10% IS 14,000,000—80% IS 112,000,000—50% IS 70,000,000




THESE SAY 3RD WORLD DISTRIBUTION   700/18—-700/7——500/16

clarence swinney political historian lifeaholics of america burlington nc
author-lifeaholic: Success by working for a Life(family-health-work-finances) not just for a Living ($$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$)
comments questions welcome—


Nov. 25, 2011, 2:44 p.m.


From 1946 to 1980 the period was known as the GREAT MIDDLE CLASS YEARS
Each President worked to reduce the Debt from WWII.
In 1980 Debt was less than 1000 Billion and Government Spending was 600 Billion per year.

Reagan boastful Cut Taxes plus Cut the size of Government was a Trojan Horse, per his OMB Stockman, to cut Taxes for very rich.

Reagan was Governor for 8 years during which he increased Taxes on many items.
He increased the state revenues more than any predecessor.
By Far. Cutting Government? Ho Hum. Blarney Baloney once more.

Reagan policies increased Spending by 80% .
Debt by 186%. 
9-30-81 Debt was $999.9 Billion and 9-30-89 at $1,859 Billion
Conservatives use Spin: It was Congress.
From 1930 to 1980 we spent $6066 Billion.
Reagan 8 Budgets totaled over $7000 Billion.
Congress? Ho Hum.
Blarney Baloney.
Congress returned Reagan 8 budgets for his signature with
fewer total dollars on them.
Haynes Johnson in “sleepwalking” said Reagan administration was “most scurrilous in history”
138 were investigated /charged/fined. More than total for all preceding Presidents in 20th century.
There were scandals in 27 Departments of the Federal Government.
Most involved money fraud.
The book “Ronald Reagan-There he goes again” documents over 300 incorrect statements by good old Ron. 
Each President from 1945 reduced the Debt then came Spend-Borrow Reagan
to increase government by 80%. 

THEN-Here comes GHW BUSH.
No braggart here. Nice Gentleman.
He increased Debt to $4411 Billion.
A 54% Increase.
Give him credit for increasing Tax on Rich due to out of control Deficits.
He had courage to put America first over ideology and party.

The Debt on 9-30-1993 was $4411 Billion.
The Debt on 9-30-01 was $5807 Billion.
An increase of $1396 or 31%
He ended with a surplus.

HERE comes old King of Spend-Borrow GW BUSH
Debt was $5807 Billion and on 9-30-09 it was $11,909 Billion.
105% increase.
Bush I-54%
Bush II-105%
Reagan-Bush I-Bush II did not pay down a penny of debt in 20 years
Those Three Famous Conservatives added $10,946 Billion to our Debt.
Three so called Famous “conservatives” promoted cut government
Up = Down to them.
9-30-81 to 9-30-09 we paid $8400 Billion in Interest.
87% Interest Paid on Debt incurred by the Famous 3.

Is it not possible(no) that without Reagan + Bush Tax Cuts we would enjoy a Surplus?

Increase Unearned Income Tax to 40%. Make Gamblers pay.
Increase Top Income Tax Rate to 40%
Increase Estate Tax big time big time biggie
Eliminate Loopholes on Corporate profits—Set a Minimum
2008 -16% average payment-(top rate 35%)

In 2003 distribution of corporate profits by CBO report revealed
Bottom 80% of Income earners got 8%—Top 5% got 67%—-Top 1% got 49%
2009 Tax Return of Exxon pays no tax on billions in profits. Wrong. Sad.
2007—Exxon paid no tax. Got a Refund.
2010—Exxon Profit 45 Billion. Let us see if pay a tax?
Renew Revenue Sharing to return cost to rich from middle class

Clarence Swinney
Political historian since 1991 on Reagan-Clinton-Bush II administrations.
Lifeaholics Of America—old n ugly but honest mad mad mad at Inequality in America
Author-Lifeaholic-Work for a Life not just a Living—Workaholic to Lifeaholic
Author-forthcoming—title not decided—How Democrats created a Great Middle Class and Wall Street Rich Conservatives are determined to destroy it
Many Stats from 12-6-09 article by John Lucia “The National Debt:Betrayal and Devastation
Comments and corrections welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  I do err.

Ever wonder how or why these enormously rich companies like Citibank and Bank of America decide to bilk their customers? Where does the motivation begin? Who starts the ball rolling? Does it come from the top? Do their employees collaborate? Or is it a tight band of players that are computer geeks, able to dislodge the incoming payments, hold them, causing late payment fees and subsequent increased interest penalties. Or is it a conspiracy of irate employees banding together to get their company in trouble. How does a billion dollar company instigate mass fraud, settle out of court, with essentially a slap on the wrist, which allows it to move on with no one to point a finger at or blame?

Does anyone know if this line made it into the film and if it is based on real figures?  “...Tucci’s character is told he can lose his health care and stock options—or keep them while sitting quietly in a room for a day at $176,476 an hour. “It didn’t seem like much of a choice,” he says.”

This is what Occupy Wall Street is about and this is the excess that average Americans should know about.

“Does anyone know if this line made it into the film and if it is based on real figures?  “...Tucci’s character is told he can lose his health care and stock options—or keep them while sitting quietly in a room for a day at $176,476 an hour. “It didn’t seem like much of a choice,” he says.””

Yes. To ensure that Tucci’s character, who was just fired that morning, doesn’t sabotage the sale of worthless Mortgage Backed Securities, he’s brought back to the company to sit in a room for that amount of money per hour and preservation of his health care & other severance benefits.

Yes, excesses like that define the Wall St problem as much as the sale of worthless product to unsuspecting buyers. In a video store, I’d shelve this with all the other horror flicks.

Malcolm McLean

Dec. 5, 2011, 6:33 p.m.

I saw the movie.

I also spoke to the writer and actor / producer.

I was amazed there were so many wonderful actors for such a low budget movie.

The movie overly simplifies the criminal conspiracies that Wall Street is.

It also glorifies the greed - in this case the company knowingly sells worthless securities to other investment firms - all the way down to 50c on the dollar because the other conspirators know they are worthless.

The issue the movie missed could have been summed up very easily by Jeremy Irons character:

“don’t worry - Congress won’t allow us to fail - you win in an up market, and in a down market - money is money - screw the rest”

I just saw this movie yesterday and I agree it was terrific (or terrible -  depending on your point of view). What I felt afterward, was that having some of the characters possess even brief moments of morality made them, as well as the real life version that much more infuriating.

the Denver Post says Occupy ?City is financed by Wall Street?
Is it? For years I always ignored Washington and the Sec as it just seems that things go on. I had a patient that attempted suicide for this in the late 80’s , same reason, SEC. The doc’s perked up when they found out. This is not anything new. But seems more widespread.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Wall Street Money Machine

The Wall Street Money Machine

Enticed by profits and bonuses, Wall Street took advantage of complicated mortgage-based instruments to reap billions, only to exacerbate the eventual crash.

The Story So Far

As the housing market started to fade, bankers and hedge funds scrambled for ways to maintain the lavish bonuses and profits they had become so accustomed to, repackaging mortgages in complex securities called collateralized debt obligations. The booming CDO market masked how weak the housing market was, and exacerbated its collapse.

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